RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Country Walk: East Head, West Wittering

I like to visit East Head in summer despite the crowds on the nearby beach, in order to walk among the hundred species of wild flowers and grasses which grow in the sand dunes.

Sunday, 13th August 2017, 11:00 am
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 6:25 pm

This walk is best taken mid-week. Take coins, notes, or card for the entrance fee slot machine at the car-park at the end of the narrow road from West Wittering near the mouth of Chichester Harbour SZ765983. Distance around the sand spit is up to 2.2 miles (3.5kms) depending on the tide; much shorter if you just walk on the paths through the dunes or go there at high tide.

This is where I went to make acquaintance once again with the wild flowers. What you’ll find is that there are three main habitats in the dunes: grey dunes, which are older and grow lichens giving them their colour; yellow dunes, which are younger and show a lot of fresh sand; and slacks, which are flat damp places in between the dunes where the water table is close to the surface.

Grey dunes grow some strange plants like this I photographed: sea holly, which looks very odd with dead-looking holly leaves. In the centre is the flower which is a bright powder blue. This is in the carrot family so is related to plants such as gipsy’s lace, coriander, and pignut. One plant has been in these dunes for 50 years at least. Sea spurge grows here too but the very rare Portland spurge disappeared about 50 years ago. Mosses and ferns grow in the grey dunes too. The yellow dunes, mainly around the edges of the head, have sand sedge creeping along underground sending up tufts of long narrow leaves like umbrella spokes every four inches.

The marram grass which was replanted after the National Trust took over East Head in 1974 is thriving and makes enormous dense tufts with long roots to hold the dunes in place. Walking through the slacks will show you tufts of sea rush. At the northern tip the view shows you Kingley Vale and Bow Hill on the South Downs, with the military base left across the water beyond Pilsey Island. Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower and the Isle of Wight seem close by in some weather conditions.

Keeping right-handed you’ll pass over some shingle spits, and then on the way back pass through a very rare Sussex plant community on flat tidal saltings which is where two species of sea lavender grow and are now at their best. They only cover an acre and most people don’t have a clue what a treasure they are walking through so I hope you’ll notice both common and lax sea lavenders. There is also glasswort, aka samphire, and annual sea-blite (Sueda maritimn).

To your left the ground quickly descends into mudflats where the South American rice grass (Spartina spp) grows in scattered clumps. It was brought in on the bottoms of ships 110 years ago and dominated the muds but is now beginning to die out.